Our Human Anthill

I’ve been wondering a lot lately about how and why our fellow Americans are incapable of collectively making sense out of the nonsense that swirls around us, particularly in the gridlocked political arena.

The other day I was stuck in traffic at a busy corner in mid-Manhattan and watched what looked like thousands of diverse people trying to deal with heat, in various states of undress, going in every imaginable direction through crowded sidewalks and streets. I was struck by a childhood memory of a sand-filled glass box in my home in which an uncountable number of ants lived, worked and went about their seemingly endless lives.

Also in the last weeks, a brilliant Foreign Service officer, Larry Eagleburger, who became Secretary of State briefly at the end of his long, distinguished career, died. His well-deserved obituaries omitted one thing, which stands sharply in my memory of my experiences with him. He frequently said that in dealing with nation-states it is common that even the biggest experts can not foresee well or accurately how such states will act under stress and other difficult circumstances. And, he had a simple method to discern how they might behave. He transposed the states into children in his mind and asked himself how children would act and behave in similar circumstances. He was convinced that he got quite close to the right answers in most cases.

Despite his success with this method, it probably would not be safe for most people to try to employ it in their own lives because Larry was a supernaturally smart, insightful guy whose mind could penetrate knotty problems; he probably simply used the device to express how he reached his conclusions. That said, the tool can bring a useful perspective to assessments of large-scale human entanglements, even when substituting ants for children.

The mental pictures of the Manhattan intersection, the glass anthill and Eagleburger’s conception of nations behaving like children (read ants) merged in my admittedly strange mind and I began thinking about human ants and how and why they behave differently from ant ants.

We think sometimes that the roughly seven billion people that inhabit the earth today are a lot of people. They are, but I wonder how many ants there are on the globe today. Probably there are multiples more ants than human ants.

We know that every human ant is more or less created equal (in today’s world though not always in yesterday’s); they all have dreams, hopes, aspirations, fears and various degrees of talent.

We really do not know much about the individual mental processes of ants. But, we do know that ants collectively are not random creatures. They definitely respond to leadership and various forms of organizational structure. It appears that they have some concepts of space management and architectural design in utilizing the spaces they occupy. They also definitely have a life cycle and they recreate–which some say is the most important, exciting thing in their lives (and why not?) – and expand and populate the way human ants do. How they deal with conflict and confusion was opaque to me as a child. But, they always seemed to be optimistic and on the march toward what they evidently saw as a bright common future.

So what is relevant about the differences between human ant behavior and ant behavior? Perhaps it is ego? Where are you when we need you Dr. Freud? Ego surely has a lot to do with individual and collective human ant behavior. That said there does appear to be something like ego among the leadership behavior in the ant world as there is also with bees.

So what can explain why and how human ants these days seem to be bent and determined on various forms of self-destruction? I hate to think that ants are smarter than human ants and can foresee or sense danger in their mass behavior better than humans. Perhaps the distribution of ego, freedom, greed and self-determination in the ant world is rationed and apportioned in some amazing way that provides an instinctive sort of group self-protection.

What can we humans learn from our ant friends? Applying the Eagleburger test suggests that if ants can come to their senses and avoid self-generated destruction, that same natural phenomenon could occur among humans. I am not so sure, however, that we can count on that because perhaps our overdeveloped and widespread human thinking capacity causes various forms of denial and wish fulfillment to interfere with our senses of danger built in from our most primitive days.

Perhaps, if more of us stopped and reduced our thinking about the world around us, if only for reflection purposes, into terms as basic as is suggested by our ant friends, we all collectively might better see the real world and all the dangers it contains that truly threaten our very existence.

Maybe ants outnumber us by such large proportions, not just because they are smaller, but because they still can sense danger more acutely?


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